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Nancy Cunard's Negro and the Transnational Politics of Race

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 13, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 507-530 | 10.1353/mod.2006.0076

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In Walter Benjamin's 1931 essay, "Unpacking My Library," he remarks that

There is no living library that does not harbor a number of booklike creations from fringe areas. They need not be stick-in albums or family albums, autograph books or portfolios containing pamphlets or religious tracts; some people become attached to leaflets and prospectuses, others to handwriting facsimiles or typewritten copies of unobtainable books; and certainly periodicals can form the prismatic fringes of a library.

This essay considers Nancy Cunard's Negro: An Anthology (1934) as a "booklike creation from a fringe area." As Benjamin suggests, these border paraphernalia can take the form of scrapbooks, political ephemera—such as manifestos—and other detritus of the archive. Anthologies, of course, are collections of a sort. They contain disparate literary, musical, or artistic passages, works, or pieces and they are usually framed by an introduction. This frame, as Brent Edwards has argued, "flesh[es] out [the anthology's] history of use; and imagin[es] its scope of implication, its uses, its 'future.'" Anthologies can often, as in the case of Alain Locke's The New Negro and certainly The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, institute a group of writers as canonical and envision a future in which the national assimilation of the "Negro" occurs.

Such was not the case with Cunard's Negro. It was banned in the British West Indies and several West African colonies on the grounds of its "seditiousness," and it prompted reactions from black activists and writers ranging from silence, to guarded praise, to great enthusiasm. What could not be denied about Negro's achievement, however, was its articulation of a transnational African and African-diasporic world. Negro was certainly not the first text to do so. Elaborating a variety of political aims, W. E. B. Du Bois's The Negro (1915) and the Crisis; Marcus Garvey's Negro World and Black Man; and other Anglophone black periodicals such as the New York Age, the London-based the Keys, and Dusé Mohamed Ali's the Ethiopian Times and Orient Review; and Francophone journals such as La Dépêche africaine and La Revue du monde noir aimed at creating transnational solidarities. (I am using the term transnationalism rather than internationalism to denote how colonization and the slave trade created nation states composed of multinational populations who are situated both within and without a given territorially-bound nation.) Yet Cunard's Negro Anthology far outstripped previous efforts to document the formidable history and cultures of black people around the world.

Negro's transnational effort has, by and large, been obscured by critical attention to Cunard's racial romanticism and her refusal to acknowledge her race and class privilege as a white vanguard poet and activist. In fact, Negro is now a nearly forgotten anthology. Besides objection to Cunard herself, Negro's idiosyncratic collection of documents of African and African-diasporic experience—including accounts of the middle passage, slavery, segregation, lynching, rape, forced labor and hunger as well as black artistic, historical and cultural achievements—has recently been read as a "personal and anecdotal [rather] than global collection." I suggest, however, that Negro can be understood as recontextualizing white avant-gardist and socialist rupture within an African and African-diasporic modernity. The anthology combines a historical reconstruction of African and African-diasporic pasts with the revolutionary impulses documented by Negro's communist and surrealist-inspired contributions, especially its manifestos and montage forms. In addition, reading Negro as a transnational modernist text articulated (at least in part) from the perspective of colonized and subject peoples of color makes modernism look less like a radical break with the past than a disjunctive crossing of past, present, and future, a crossing that expresses the condition of black modernity.

This reading undoubtedly goes against the grain of Cunard's primitivist intentions when examined by themselves. But I propose that we read Negro as a collectivist documentary project within whose revisionary context of colonial and racialized "peripheries" and "prehistories" its revolutionary contributions should be understood. In the case of Negro, I am investigating how avant-garde rupture meets the occulted history of African and African-diasporic modernity and how it intervenes in...



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